Metro to Mountains to Mates: Zacatecas to Guanajuato

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May 4th, 8:00am. I was determined to actually leave Zacatecas this morning, despite the amazing inertial force to stay. Between the magical energy contained within the city streets and the seemingly endless kindness offered by Francisco and Sandra, it was not easy. The road was calling out to me again however, and I needed to avoid overstaying my welcome. With a bike escort out of town by Francisco, I hit the pavement for a few miles until I reached the limits of metropolitan development. As buildings grew further apart, cobblestone streets and storefronts were replaced by vast farmland. As usual, Google maps directed me immediately off pavement and onto a set of rough dirt farm roads, forcing actual butt contact with saddle to be quite rare.

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A short passage through the small canyon town of Genaro Codina and I was climbing steeply up a loose rocky back road. Only upon reaching the top did I realize there was a much easier gravel road leading to the same place. Thanks again, Google. You really like to make me work for it!

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Rough, faded roads continued to climb up onto a mesa that would lead me South. I loved the silence. After the last town, I didn’t see a vehicle the rest of the day.

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 After chatting with a local in a nearby town, I was directed up one final steep climb onto another mesa to find a quiet campsite. Just me and the cattle enjoying a breezy sunset.

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Stone walls. They’re all over the place around here. I assume they’re supposed to delineate property lines, but sometimes they just seem superfluous and random, dotting the steep hillsides for miles on end, no structures or signs of life within the boundaries they maintain.

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 Another beautifully laid stone street through another sweet colonial town. I had decided to take paved roads for a section of the route which would bypass the large industrial city of Aguas Calientes. Based on map information, this city seemed to have a rather extensive amount of urban sprawl, and I wanted to get through it as quickly as possible in order to make it back out to the next mountain range. It would still be a long day of riding to get to the next open place for camping, so I stocked up on food and set out for the day’s intended goal.

I didn’t make it far.

At the corner store a local man struck up a conversation in English as I was loading the food into my bags. Turns out he was a bronze sculptor by the name of Jose Luis, quite well known in the area for his work representing local indigenous culture. We ended up chatting for some time. More on that later…

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Summiting the climb out of town, I saw a sign signaling a dirt road to “Cerro de las Aguilas” (Mountain of the Eagles). I couldn’t help myself. 300 yards away, the land dropped into an enormous canyon, completely invisible from the main road! I longed to explore it a bit more, but felt the pull to push on given the day’s riding goal.

Again. Didn’t get very far.

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Just as I was pulling off the dirt and back onto the main road, a weathered older man was pulling onto he dirt on his bike, toting a huge Mexican flag and a guitar. Turns out he lives on the precipice of the canyon, and has grown up exploring it. He spoke of discovering a cave that nobody in town knows about with a tiny entrance that opens up into an immense cavern. He’d only made it about 50 feet into the cave before he got nervous to proceed alone. He said if I were ever back in the area, how he’d love to share it with me.

hm….

I was amazed to hear myself say, without hesitation, “How about right now?”

So here was a man I had met only moments before, offering to take me alone into a huge canyon to explore an unknown cave. I thought about the possibility of this experience going very sour very quickly. All I can say is that I felt safe with him. I could feel how genuinely excited he was about this place, and that he rarely has the chance to share it with anyone, as the locals in town had little interest in venturing out into the canyon.

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We stopped by his trailer to fill up on water and bring his dogs for the trip. 3 fantastically sweet australian shepherd mixes and a big fat pit bull. He closed the door to his small, unlikely-to-be-mobile-anytime-soon home, but not before slinging a very large bowie knife over his shoulder. I thought to myself, “Is this guy going to take me into a cave and gut me with that thing??” Rather than let fear get the better of me, I just asked him about it.

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The knife had been hand made for him (his name is Maleno) by a local bronze artist named… yep… Jose Luis. The guy I met only an hour before in town. The one person I spoke to in town. Maleno has a passion for eagles, hence the design. I instantly felt at ease about the knife, as it was clearly a prized possession and nothing to be afraid of.

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We set out over the edge of the steep hillside behind his trailer, no trail was in sight. Just a whole lot of bushwhacking. But he pushed forward with a confidence and direction that again led me to feel safe following his steps.

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We eventually intersected with a more developed trail which he said had been used historically by the indigenous people to travel through the canyon.

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A few scrapes and cuts later, we had climbed up the far side of the canyon to reach the cave’s entrance. Just as he’d described, there was a tiny entrance that lay before us.

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Really tiny. Less than 2 feet tall. I had to snake my way in on elbows to clear it.

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Inside was not exactly as he’d claimed. it was a tiny tight cave that went back about 20 feet before it got too narrow to pass. Maleno was clearly upset at what we were seeing. He’d been there only 3 months ago and was absolutely sure it was the same place. We spent some time trying to make sense of the situation, guessing that either there had been a rock slide inside the cave that destroyed the cavern, or that there was another entrance that had been covered over by other explorers who may have entered and found valuable minerals inside. The truth was there was no answer. We agreed that it had still been a lovely hike and there were no regrets.

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I spent the return hike enjoying fantastic views from within the canyon.

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Maleno was so upset and confused still about the unexpected state of the cave, he even showed me drawings he’d made in his journal of what it looked like. I really believed him, and that something must have happened to the cave he’d known a few months back. Alas. We exchange contact information and I set back out onto the road, only 5 hours later than I’d planned and with no regrets. But it was now 3pm, and I had limited hours of light to get around the sprawl of the metropolis of Aguas Calientes.

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 I pushed forward on the paved roads for about 4 hours to finally reach a stretch of dirt farmland. Quickly finding a secluded spot off the road to set up camp amongst some cacti, I settled in for the night. What a day it had been. Above all else, my heart felt full with a deep appreciation for the freedom to “just say yes” to serendipitous opportunity. One year ago, I’d have felt too pressured to get my miles in for the day and wouldn’t have made the same choice. Somehow the change feels like progress. 

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I awoke with aspirations for a big day, as I was due to arrive in Guanajuato by the end of the following day to meet a man who’d be hosting me there. Continuing to follow the route I’d come up with on Google, I followed the little blue line on my GPS device’s map. The 2 track farm road I’d started on quickly reduced to a windy single track. Quite fun actually! By now I’ve come to realize that so long as I’m up for an adventure, following a Google-created map will always get me to my destination. I just have to be willing to cut through some back yards and hop a couple fences…

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 Later that morning, the route passed through a small town. Perfect place to grab a breakfast and stock up on groceries for my next big section of mountainous adventure. As I devoured my eggs, rice and beans, the cook and owner of the joint sat down with me. I shared the abridged version of the story and got to ask her a little about her experience in this town. Standing up to settle the check, she would not take my money. “There are few people in the world who can do what you’re doing. I’m inspired by you and I’d like to help.” Blown away by this random act, I gave her a huge hug and thanked her immensely. Her husband opened the door for me as I walked outside, shaking my hand in the process. Feeling something in my palm, I looked down to see he’d slipped 100 pesos into my palm. Seriously??? Yes. They wanted to make sure I had enough money to eat for the rest of the day. Perhaps they were quite well off and it was not a big deal to them. But I don’t think so. Either way, I am in awe of the amazing actions we humans take. Profound thanks.

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 A few hours of grinding some pavement led to the foot of the Sierra de Lobos (Wolf Mountains), just North of Leon. Hoping to get through the range before nightfall, I got climbing right away on the smooth, yet steep dirt road.

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 Well, the smooth part didn’t last too long. Again impressed and surprised by Google maps’ capacity to successfully carry me through remote places, I trusted it and rode on.

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The rough road passed various small farms and settlements. I felt a little odd, like I was riding through someone’s yard, intruding on the locals’ space. But it was a public road, just very very very rarely used.

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 Very rarely used. Well, at least it was smooth for a bit.

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That didn’t last long. The faded 2 track through farmland gave way to craggy rocky road which hadn’t seen any vehicular traffic in a long time…

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… if ever.  It was at this point that I started to wonder if I’d finally been led astray by the online route. There was still clear foot traffic along the way, but no cars had ever cleared this path, of that I was certain.

 

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Moments later, after cresting a small hill… a mirage? No, it was a beautiful little colonial town in the center of the mountain range! Good thing too, because I was getting a little low on water.

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The road out of town climbed and descended through beautiful mountainous farmland.

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At long last, I had only precious moments of light left to find a campground. I turned off the dirt road and opened the first cattle gate I could find. Climbing up to the crest of a small hill, the perfect flat spot among the cacti, looking out at the peaks of the Sierra de Lobos.

 

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A rustle in the nearby brush. A crack of a branch under immense weight. Ah… I was not alone. I was to share my beautiful little bluff with a small herd of bovines who seemed quite curious about having a visitor for the night. Crowding around me as I set up my tent and stove, I was oddly comforted by the company.

 

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Final day’s riding into Guanajuato. First step: ride up and over the final pass to exit the Sierra de Lobos.

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Twas a harder task than initially appeared. 8% grades quickly gave way to 12, and then stabilized between 14% and 22% for most of the climb. In my experience, it was one pedal stroke at a time. Slow.

 

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I summited El Gigante pass and came across a familiar site. In Seattle and many major US cities, a bike painted in all white signifies that a cyclist was killed in that location. I could only assume it meant the same here. Sad, but sweet to see the life and death of a cyclist honored all the way out here.

 

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The steep descent was delayed for a moment by a group of cows, and the cowboy/dogs keeping them on route. As usual, the man was quite friendly, chatting with me for a minute as I coasted alongside his horse.

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After my morning descent from 7500’ down to 6200’, I could see the afternoon’s goal from here: An 8700′ tall mountain boasting a 100′ tall statue of Jesus Christ at it’s summit, called the Cubilete.

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 I embarked on the main climb, a little too full from lunch and again overwhelmed by the extreme grades. As was the ascent this morning, 15-20% grades challenged my gears, but with the added variable of loose chunks of rock. The statue seemed so close, but was somehow still nearly 2000’ above me. Short spurts got me up: pedal for 5 minutes until I couldn’t take it anymore, catch my breath for a few. Bite the pride now and again to walk the sections too steep to ride.

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At long last, made it to the top! Very reminiscent of the Corcovado in Brazil. It was a quiet day there. I could see the endless rows of food carts aligning the final kilometer long cobblestone road spiraling up to the summit and knew this place must get very busy at times. For me it was silent. The odd family here and there, but mostly just open solemn space in a place that held strong spiritual significance for many. Bike is bottom right of the statue for size comparison…

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Turning away from the statue was equally if not more amazing, at least for me whose strongest connection to G*D is wilderness.

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 Overlooking the outskirts of Guanajuato city. Only about 10k away as the crow flies, but about 30k of winding dirt roads would bring me into this historic colonial city… or so I thought.

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 As is proving to common in Mexico, road development through previously rural areas is rampant. The route I’d picked with expectations as a rough dirt road had been widened and paved. Unfortunately with fake cement cobblestones. If you’ve not ridden a bike on this type of surface, it’s among the most frustrating possible terrains: constant jostling and vibrating at different frequencies varying with speed, but never the option of going fast enough to make it feel smooth. I wondered, Why go through the effort to pave a road with this? Isn’t it easier to use just flat cement?? I’m sure there’s a reason, but I’m as of yet not aware of it.

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 As the day approached sunset, I descended into the windy narrow streets of Guanajuato. This place is A. Maze. Ing. In the labyrinthian sense. No road is straight or level. Buildings climb 2-3 stories directly from the street with 1-2’ sidewalks lining the edge to avoid cars.

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There there are the tunnels. Originally constructed during mining times to divert water away from the Guanajuato River to avoid flooding, this complex complex of tunnels are quite impressive. Curving and winding under the city of various subterranean levels, I encountered intersections, parking areas, and beautiful stone work as I crossed under the steep hills of the city to reach the center.

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One of the many beautiful plazas near the centro turistico.

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Mercado Hildalgo. One of my favorite parts of larger cities are these huge public markets. Full of fresh food, housewares, and just about any other knick knack you might be seeking.

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 Guanajuato was alive with music and events every day and night of the 3 days I spent there. From group jazzercise classes in the morning…

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 To private serenades.

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 The day after I arrived, I connected with Dean and Dang. This Pilipino couple were the first other bikers I’ve met so far heading to Argentina and beyond, specifically by off-road routes like myself. Dean rides a Surly ECR and Dang, a Surly Troll with huge 2.75″ Dirt Wizard tires. So great to connect with them about the details of bikepacking long-term, and share stories of our experiences. Hours later, Francisco and Sandra contacted me that they were driving the Canadian couple Karl and Marie with their daughter Kayla to Guanajuato. We all met for dinner and breakfast!

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 Dean and I rode out to explore the single track trails above town one morning. Lots of winding jeep roads up there but a growing number of downhill trails! This jump had a 15′ gap behind it with minimally smooth landing. Seems like the downhill ridiers do exist around here, though rare. We saw a few out on the trails and others who use the city as their bike park. With all the steep winding streets, alleys and staircases, some riders will go on late night downhill rides from the high outskirts of town, descending the technical urban terrain into the valley of the city center!

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I write this during my final moments here in Guanajuato before pushing on to San Miguel de Allende tomorrow. It has been a lovely few days of reconnecting with Karl and Marie, and forming new bonds with Dean and Dang. I’m hesitant to ride ahead of them for fear that we won’t cross paths again. Having just found 2 people that share my passion for dirt, it seems odd to leave, but they are committed to an immersion Spanish course through the following week and I have a friend in San Miguel that I need to see before he leaves town in 3 days. I sincerely hope we get to share at least a few days of trail together someday soon, as we are a rare breed, even among long distance bike tourists. Both kind and sweet spirits, I hope they catch up to me in the next town, or perhaps I’ll need to pause for long enough to make that happen.

As for my own spirit, I have again found the flow of this journey for the time being. Strong connections and intense conversations with so many good people these last few weeks have renewed my passion for the path and all it can bring. And yet there is another level to it all, beyond the people, places and experiences. That internal journey that only progresses in the quiet moments, suspended from animation. A quiet calling to foster it’s development is also making its presence known on the rich horizon of my wants, needs, and longings. To heed its plea is not as simple as riding, eating, sleeping and planning. It requires asking the hard questions and creating the space to receive answers in the form of subtle insight. Or so I believe in this moment. It is again time to deposit some energetic funds in that account and see what emerges. I’ll let you know…

7 Responses

  1. Teri Ann
    | Reply

    …what a great post..!!!
    by chance did you get to go to the “mummies museum”…?
    i have a friend in smda…. his name is Steve Korner.. of Flying Concrete
    look it up… i spent 3 months in that area learning concrete sculpture
    …mineral de pozos is a cool place to explore… xoxo tat

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Hey TAT! I didn’t make it to the mummies. Felt the need to move on before I saw it. But it was a cool city nonetheless. I’ll look up Steve and Flying Concrete. I’ll be in SMDA for about 5-6 more days so time to hang!

  2. John Fontanilles
    | Reply

    Scott, excellent chapter; you definitely know how to travel. Your account of going to the cave with the guy with the Bowie knife had me smiling. So few are open enough to experience moments like that, but those are some of the most life shaping moments. Also, I’m psyched you got to met up with Dean and Dang.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Hey John! Thanks, it was a great few days. Trying to figure out how to plan a section of road with DnD right now…

  3. Ben Shimizu
    | Reply

    This was great to follow once again….look forward to more posts.

  4. Dana VanVoo
    | Reply

    Jose Luis, Maleno, Dean, Dang, Karl, Maria, Kayla…So many lovely people. Great exploring in Cerro de las Aguilas and even though the cave was not what Maleno expected, I loved the exploration and possibility of another cave being out there for Maleno to find again. This is a fabulous journey!

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